Search engine optimization (SEO) might not be top of mind for every small business owner, but it probably should be. SEO can help small-medium businesses (SMBs) improve their visibility online, reach more customers and increase sales in a cost-effective way. Local SEO in particular can be a very potent avenue to growing a small business through an improved online presence.
Being found for location-based searches (or searches where your location provides important context e.g., “car wash”) is incredibly helpful for most businesses – but it can be crucial for SMBs. If you’re a small business owner it’s particularly important to visible for searches specific to what you offer in the geographic areas you serve.
Websites for S&P 500 companies might dominate rankings for a long list of competitive keywords, but small local businesses often reign supreme for searches where location is important. Contextually relevant results are all the rage and few things are more relevant for local search than small businesses.
Small businesses and local businesses aren’t the same thing of course, but there’s often a large overlap. Most homebased SMBs have some geographic focus as well even if they don’t have a location. For example, a small business offering cleaning services is likely to focus on servicing customers in a particular city or metro area.
Brick & Mortar vs Service-based
The first step in optimizing an SMB website for local search is to establish the geographic parameters. It’s always important to determine the following:
- Are their brick-and-mortar locations or are customers serviced at their location – or both?
- Are their multiple locations or geographic areas to consider or just one?
- Are the hours of operation the same for all locations? How are they maintained and shared?
- Are appointments required?
Some of these questions may have obvious answers and may not need to be asked, but they should still be considered. And as business models evolve, obvious answers may no longer be obvious. For example, many restaurants and grocery stores that typically didn’t service customers at their location prior to 2020 are now offering delivery. Either way this type of discovery is really helpful when formulating local SEO strategies and preparing optimizations.
According to the SBA, 50% of all small businesses start at home. So even if an SMB business owner is planning to have a location eventually – it’s also very possible they will start their journey without one.
For businesses with a physical location, it’s important to remember that over three quarters of shoppers visit a business’s website before they visit a location. And while many small businesses have embraced digital marketing in recent years, many also continue to struggle. According to Forbes, 71% of businesses have a website in 2023, but only 43% of small business owners plan to invest in their website performance. While there is a growing trend in small businesses investing in websites and digital marketing – there is a clear gap when compared to larger enterprises. It may be true that this gap is due in part to budgets and funding, but a lack of trust and understanding is also likely at play.
What to Avoid
There’s COUNTLESS companies promising small business owners the moon in exchange for, often extortionate, monthly fees. Whether it’s #1 rankings on Google or 5000% ROAS on paid media – any promise to good to be true usually is.
The fundamental issue is that many of these schemers and scammers not only can’t fulfill their promises, but they often hurt the long-term performance of websites they “work” on. In these instances, the pain (in the form of poor performance) is felt long after the small business owner has cancelled their service.
Trying to “game Google” by using what’s known as black hat SEO tactics (doing things that are against search engine guidelines) can have disastrous effects. Algorithmic penalties and manual actions (a person at Google flagging a website) can be devasting for site traffic. And anything that devasts your site traffic can hurt your overall business in a digital-first world.
Run if your current or prospective SEO (or website) provider is doing any of the following:
- Promising rankings and/or results – this is akin to a financial manager guaranteeing a rate of return (no one can/should because it’s virtually impossible)
- Buying backlinks or obtaining links from any type of “network of websites”
- Creating numerous pages with similar content for different keyword and/or location combinations – also known as doorway pages
- Requiring a link be included on your website pointing back to theirs (often seen as a “powered by XYZ company” link in the footer)
- Keyword stuffing, hiding content (i.e., white text on white background) and/or automatically generating large amounts of content
- Companies that have a “secrete sauce” or technology they can’t explain or elaborate on
- Individuals claiming to work with Google, Bing or other search engines – or have SEO certifications (there is no meaning or accredited SEO certification available at this time)
Many SMBs have lost trust in search engine optimization and other forms of digital marketing due to negative experiences in the past. It’s understandable that many family-owned and independent businesses are leery of SEO when even SEO experts claim much of the industry is a scam.
The magnitude of companies scamming small businesses has been bad enough to get the attention of Google on numerous occasions as well. For example, Google filed several lawsuits against firms scamming SMBs back in 2019.
The SEO industry has a lot of work to do when it comes to rebuilding trust with small business owners in the US. Digital marketing may have a negative connotation for many mom-and-pop shops – but when done right it’s a game-changing.
Why SEO is Important for Small Businesses
SEO is important for virtually any business with an online presence, but it can be a huge competitive advantage for small businesses. As pointed out above, many small businesses don’t invest in their websites and digital marketing as much are larger enterprises. Being more innovative than your competitors in the digital arena can be a huge edge for SMBs. Having an early lead over (or working hard to overtake) other local businesses in the natural search space can help improve visibility, traffic and sales.
Having a consistent online presence that is clearly visibility (i.e., appearing in Google for your own brand name) can also be an important factor in establishing trust with potential customers. Being where your customers are is critical to establishing credibility and confidence – and odds are your customers are on search engines like Google.
Lastly, the great thing about SEO for small businesses is that it doesn’t require the same type of budgeting that paid media or other forms of advertising do. Optimizing a website and/or other digital properties might not be free, but the traffic from doing is.
How to Shop for an SEO
The best way to shop for an SEO provider is to avoid the schemes and scams mentioned above and look for a long-term partner. Evaluating a prospective SEO provider’s experience, work history, case studies etc. is paramount. Some details may need to be omitted due to NDAs (non-disclosure agreements), but be cautious of any company or individual that has nothing to share except promises.
And great SEOs aren’t always a great fit for every client either. Even the most experienced SEOs might not be experienced in local SEO or the industry your business is in. Finding an SEO that has supported clients in your vertical or niche is great whenever possible. If you can’t find an SEO that knows your industry, be sure to look for one that shows an eagerness to learn. The discovery phase is pivotal to an effective SEO strategy.
Like many investments, it’s a good idea to become a “5-minute expert” on SEO to determine the legitimacy of the services being offered or provided. Using trusted resources like Ahrefs, Semrush & Moz to understand SEO basics can help entrepreneurs avoid scam when selecting a provider. Google also has helpful tips on how to choose an SEO provider. Some savvy business owners may even find they are capable of doing their own SEO with resources and tips crafted specifically for small business owners.